In the past decade, a new icon has been added to Turkey’s culture wars: St. Valentine’s Day, or, in its Turkish adaptation, the “Lovers Day.” As Feb. 14 nears, many companies begin to run advertisements offering the most romantic gifts, dinners or getaways for loving couples. In return, Islamic preachers or pundits advise fellow Turks not to be fooled by this “propaganda,” which they see as an agent of cultural degeneration and moral corruption.
This year, too, the Islamist arguments against St. Valentine’s Day did not change much. Various writers in Islamist papers and websites warned that there are at least three good reasons for refusing to celebrate the day of romance. First, the man on whose name the whole thing is based, St. Valentine, is a Christian saint, someone that Muslims should not follow. Secondly, the shopping frenzy that Lovers Day promotes only serves “capitalism,” something that good Muslims are supposed to reject. Thirdly, the whole St. Valentine’s Day culture promotes pre-marital sex, which, of course, Islam regards as grave sin.
On the other hand, the more secular and Westernized Turkish writers repeated their usual complaint: That all Islamists are close-minded bigots who hate anything that is foreign and fun.
However, between these two camps, there were also signs of a “third way” that is unfolding in Turkey, which incorporates elements of the modern Western culture, but also recasts them in more acceptable, Islam-friendly terms. The Lovers Day events organized across the country by none other than the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) — the party that most Turkish Islamists vote for — were greats examples.
In Ankara, for instance, the AKP’s youth branch in the central Çankaya municipality opened booths in Kızılay, the capital’s most crowded area, which offered free roses and free photo services for couples. “Let’s together found the society of love,” a big poster read, while a band played live music.
In Istanbul, municipalities such as Pendik or Bayrampaşa, which are run by AKP mayors, also organized Lovers Day events. In Pendik, couples were invited to have photos taken in front of a sign which read, “Everyday we love each other more and more.” Many of the women who posed with their husbands and sometimes children wore the Islamic headscarf, reflecting the conservative mainstream of poor municipalities such as Pendik.
In Çerkezköy, a municipality to the West of Istanbul, the AKP women organization also organized a special Lovers Day event: Six couples who have been married for more than 50 years were chosen as “Lovers who don’t age,” and were given presents at a dinner in a five-star hotel. Similar celebrations for “lifelong couples” were organized in various other AKP municipalities as well.
At all such events, there was a notable nuance: Unlike in the West, where St. Valentine often brings to mind young lovers who are probably just dating, the AKP emphasis was on married couples who proved to be loyal to each other. The emphasis, in other words, was on “the family,” and romantic love was seen as a basis for this sacred union, rather than being a goal in itself.
This unmistakably reflects the family focus one can see in almost all social policies of the AKP, and its powerful leader, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Notably, it is a little different from the worldviews of both Turkey’s secular Westernists and its old-school Islamists: It reflects both an adaption but also a redefinition of Western symbols and norms.
In that sense, this new family-minded Lovers Day seems to be a confirmation of what Turkish sociologist Nilüfer Göle has been arguing for a long time: That Turkey is not strictly divided between the cultures of the West and Islam, but is rather breeding mixtures between these two. As Göle argued in her most recent book, Hybrid Patterns: On Islam and Modernity, what we see is not the clear-cut divisions that fundamentalists idealize, but amalgams that synthesize capitalism, globalization, faith and tradition.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian.